Saturday, 14 December 2013

Queen Mary University's East End Tour

Today's tour was a little fractured beginning and ending with other tours... maybe it can be called a sandwich tour. The filling, however, is in no doubt, that was an audio tour provided by Queen Mary University of London.  

The sandwich metaphor can be stretched just a little further as I began my evening in search of the Charnel House in Spitalfields which I had been made aware of on a different tour and marked on the map as occupying the same spot as Costa. Today I found it and to my surprise it is not right to call it the Costa Charnel House, it is much more the Pret a Manger Charnel House, as you can see in the picture. There do seem to be an inordinate number of these sandwich stores in the city.

The Queen Mary University East End Tour began round the corner at Liverpool Street Station. There is something very appealing about starting tours at stations as they are portals full of potential and generally not observed closely enough since people are usually in a hurry coming and going. To encourage this transitory nature, there are, apparently, sonic devices called MOSQUITOS that emit a sound that is particularly annoying to people under 25. These devices are used (by people over 25 we can safely assume) to discourage gangs from congregating and Liverpool Street Station is meant to be one of the stations that has this ultra-sonic sound played as a constant. I was unable to hear it and so simply put on my earphones and started the audio recording. The Queen Mary Tour told me to exit via the Broadgate escalator and in this respect  treated the station much like everybody else: a non-place that leads you elsewhere.

The instructions were at first quite clear and spoken by a woman who articulated very thoroughly. She told me to go down this lane, which I did, and that is where the tour got going with some descriptions of the narrow passage. The narrator acted as the host and from time to time introduced lecturers from Queen Mary who would speak on their specialist topics. Here for example there was, if I remember correctly, a professor talking about how the East End was viewed as being a terrible place full of crime and social problems. The fact that the experts were from different departments of Queen Mary made it clear to me that this tour was an inter-disciplinary initiative bringing together the likes of the English department with the Geography department. This was interesting in that it demonstrated how geographically framed tours (e.g. an East End Tour) by their nature tend to dip into different subjects; a bit of history, a bit of politics, a bit of geography and, why not, a bit of literature. Still, there was an assumption about what it was interesting to talk about and this mostly meant talking about the past. A tour that mixed two disciplines and did not take such a historical frame would be far more curious indeed. You could mix, for example, crime and botany and while you'd have two rather separate streams of information you'd probably find some points where they informed one another.

The tour took me to many familiar spots, such as Petticoat Lane Market. I'm not going to refer back to the audio so I can be clear about what was said, I think it is better to rely on memory so that what I write here is what is remembered, the impressions the tour left me with. Here then, I think I was told that this was one of London's oldest markets. I seem to remember they added some market sound effects too: audio doubling.

I passed Happy Days fish and chip shop which is one of the Jack the Ripper sites and I remember Barnaby, the guide on Ripping Yarns Tour, saying they do really good fish and chips. He was absolutely right. With a bag of chips in hand, I continued my tour.

Once again I got the immigrant story of the area and it was the Jewish Soup Kitchen that was the site for the telling of the story this time round. The tone was quite high and modestly academic with quotes from period sources and considered commentary. The story was, however, identical to that told on regular tourist tours.

Because this tour was going over well trodden ground, I interested myself by looking at the sites obliquely, such as at this 'designated locked site' on the side of Christ Church. I listened obediently to the story then to the instructions telling me where the next listening point was and then stopped the recording and made my way there. This form of engagement with the tour was less intense than a guided tour during which you are still more part of a tour during those marches between locations and it was certainly much less intensive than the immersive Sound Map Tour which surrounds you from start to finish.

True to form the tour took in the Brick Lane Mosque and there I heard about its history, as I had on almost every other tour that comes this way. It might be necessary to map the points that appear on multiple tours and those that only feature on a single tour. A specialist tour of tours would try to connect the single use points whereas a generalist tour of tours would select only points that feature on at least two or three tours. What is nice to observe are points that feature in multiple tours and which are talked about in completely different ways, like SO Gallery on Brick Lane which combines Jewish heritage and contemporary art.

The tour took me to the park where there was a story about discrimination against  Bangladeshis in the 70s. The story finished in a curious way. The narrator said, "if you want to end your tour now, go to Aldgate East Tube station over the road." She didn't go so far as to say, "you'd be a mug to continue" but there was something of a sense of "you've seen the best of it" in her tone of voice. Taking this a step further I imagine a tour in which you are repeatedly invited to finish it at one point after another and in a variety of ways. 

There next followed a long walk from the park to Whitechapel during which there were no recordings. This is more or less that same problem that the Walk The Line Tour faced: this stretch of road is not obviously interesting. I therefore had to think of the young lady on the Chinese tour bus I previously mentioned who pointed out a TESCO whenever she passed one. Since there is this one on the route, I do so in memory of her. I was starting to think I should have taken the narrator's advice and quit while I was ahead.


I also noticed several stores with signs like this: 

Money Transfer | Job Centre | Travels & Tours | Hajj & Umrah 

This got me thinking about pilgrimage and hajj as a tour. It's a huge topic that I'll have to return to at some point, hopefully in the context of a pilgrimage site or tour. Briefly though, I remember visiting Lourdes in Southern France and being surprised at how this Catholic pilgrimage destination managed to be simultaneously kitsch and impressive. I also remember hearing about virtual Hajj that was a big story a while back. When Second Life was in its prime you could send your avatar on pilgrimage to Mecca and I seem to remember other forms of virtual pilgrimage too. More research that needs to be done!

I downloaded the MP3 audio files and PDF map onto my phone but I found that my phone would not open the map file. This meant I was reliant on the audio instructions to find my way. By about two thirds of the way through, the audio instructions started becoming vague and I had to start guessing and looking around to make sure I was on the right path. As there was no street sign to indicate Mile End Road, for example, I had to scan the business plates till I found this one confirming I was on the right road.

The tour took me to progressively less and less glamorous locations such as this slither of green space that used to be important for meetings and public speaking. It is hard to imagine that happening now. You'd have to shout over the buses that roar past and the relentless flow of Mile End Road.  

The nadir moment of the tour for me came when I realised I must have completely missed one of the audio stops. I could not see anything like the place I was looking for and so I just pressed PLAY and listened to the next track hoping I could get a clearer picture of the place from the recording. I found myself listening to a discourse on geometry and social values while looking into Topps Tiles. At this point I realised I might as well make what I will of the tour and find my own sense in it. This was actually quite a liberating moment as I stopped feeling like I was making a mistake but instead allowed it all to be experience that could be interpreted however I wished.

Cut adrift then, I came to SFC (Stepney Fried Chicken) nestled alongside Stepney Green tube station. While I might smile at the woman who maps the country with TESCO I must admit I have my own version of this with the fried chicken outlets that proliferate in London. I used to take pictures of their signs and after some months had quite a collection. There is a nice transference of signifiers in these as they are basically copying KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) which in turn is probably a copy of something else, and substituting Kentucky with another location, usually plucked from the American South. Some however are resolutely local like SFC and then there are the PFCs (Perfect Fried Chicken) which in turn have their imitators who copy the PFC logo but insist they are Philadelphia Fried Chicken. Where the copy of the copy will go next is anyone's guess...

Making my way back to Liverpool Street I passed the locations I missed towards the end of the Queen Mary Tour and saw how I managed to miss them. I have to admit it did not feel like any great loss as I listened to the information anyway, none of which was of a nature that depended on being there. When I arrived back in The City I came across another tour of sorts, I was barged aside by a trail of Santa Claus clad joggers. I passed them twice in fact and their distinctive costumes made them stand out in the street. Earlier in the day I had read about a City of London run and now I was amidst another group making their high speed tour of The City. It is debatable to what degree a race like this is really a tour but for me it is enough that they make this formalised circuit of the City as a group. 

I wondered what the route of their tour was and where they would finish and I guessed it must be nearby as some of them looked like they were at breaking point. I opted for Spitalfields Market, made my way there and sure enough I found a large number of city workers in Santa outfits eating mince pies and drinking mulled wine. I also saw them being timed and something of the charity operation they were doing this for. So the way this 5K race works is that the runners represent their companies and both the individual winners and fastest company teams are awarded a prize, symbolic I suppose, on a small podium. While I have a general sympathy for people doing daft things in public the Santa outfit has become a bit overused in my opinion; I saw a similar gathering of jogging Santas last year in Portsmouth, I've seen Santa dressed pub crawls and the goodwill that the costume typically invokes has also been used by Fathers For Justice who have campaigned in Santa outfits on several occasions. Maybe what I mean by this is simply that it has become ever so slightly ordinary.

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